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Hamfests for Beginners
Every new ham is soon introduced to a unique phenomenon called the “Hamfest”. This is short for “Amateur Radio Festival” and should be called an Amfest but you will soon see that we do all kinds of silly things starting with calling our hobby “ham radio” and ourselves “hams”.
To digress for a moment: Many people have asserted that the advent of the use of the term “ham radio” is unknown; cloaked in mists of time; or that it refers to the sending technique of old-time CW operators. I think I know why it was adopted. I think it was adopted to keep really cool people from crowding the airwaves and annoying radio operators who like to have nice conversations. You know. Sort of like contesters. By adopting just about the most unflattering name imaginable we have limited ourselves to about 800,000 hams, most of whom are inactive except on contest weekends when they are all active and tuning up on my net frequency. I mean, when was the last time you heard a 20 year old stud-muffin football player ask a cheerleader, “Do you want to come over to my house and hear some RTTY?” But that is for another time. We know we are cool. Who needs a drop dead gorgeous cheerleader? (AKA YL at 36 over 59) Well, for one, I d….ahem…
The idea behind the hamfest comes from ‘back in the day’ when people not only operated amateur radio stations; they also built the radios they used. They got together to sell and trade parts. And even with store bought radios, there was a time when a young “novice” radio operator could not really use the same radio that a general class or higher amateur could use. So there was a great market for used equipment and the need for a place to sell it. Remember this was before the internet. Or airmail not to put too fine a point on it. Hence Hamfests. And they continue to this day. You will soon learn that the average experienced ham radio operator changes radios every 37 days unless he has Collins gear in which case he only sells it to fund his retirement to Hawaii or a new airplane. (You will see Collins gear at hamfests but it is not really for sale. The guy is just showing off. He knows that nobody in his/her right mind would carry that kind of cash to a parking lot in the dead of night.)
And while we are on the subject let me clarify what I mean by ‘dead of night’. All hamfests start at 2 AM or some other ridiculous hour of the morning. Why? Because geezers can’t sleep? I don’t know. All I know is that if you are not the first person there you will not get the bargains. A word of caution. Before you look for bargains you will want to use the porta-potty. There will only be one because the club sponsoring the hamfest is too chea…that is to say, has not been assiduous in preparing for mostly older men stuffed with coffee, doughnuts and diuretics.
As you become more experienced you will come to understand that smart ‘festers’, as we sometimes call ourselves, have to buy a lot of stuff that we do not need for what may at first seem a doubtful purpose. We need stock to sell at the next hamfest. Once you understand why we need this it is not so doubtful at all. In getting this stuff we are preparing to be vendors at the next hamfest and thereby allowed to come in early! It does not matter if we sell any of it because getting in early is the whole point. This way we have time to buy all of the bargains before mere attendees are allowed inside the wire. I am not making this up. A few years ago I arrived at a hamfest, before sunup, to setup my stuff and a guy opened the hatch of my car and climbed in the back. Headlight and all! I figured it was too early in the morning for a carjacking and most carjackers do not wear headlamps and name tags but I was still startled until he asked me how much the gold D-104 was. I told him it was not gold it was rust….that is to say had the warm patina of vintage equipment and that the price tag was still on it from the last hamfest. I also mentioned to him that he needed new batteries for his headlamp which, as luck would have it, one of the commercial vendors was sure to have; right next to the flashing LED lights, tow bars, cords, cables and sirens for the ECOM folks.)
As you arrive at your first hamfest you will be purchasing your ticket for admission. This money will be used by the sponsoring radio club to support its repeater fund. (A repeater is a radio you put on top of a mountain and then bitch about maintaining because it is on top of a freaking mountain. And who wants to go up there and work on it and nobody uses it anyway except for the Tuesday night 2 meter net and most importantly it is not broken and whose bright idea was it to replace it anyway? Just because there is $76,112.00 in the repeater fund is no good reason to climb a mountain. I mean really? Sorry. I got off on a tangent. You will also buy $20.00 worth of $1.00 raffle tickets. The grand prize will be a two meter radio. The second prize will be a two meter HT. There are a variety of additional prizes which will range from a satellite book that the same poor guy tries to sell at every hamfest to a PL-259 with practically no wear at all. The important thing is that calling the ticket numbers for all of these prizes keeps the president of the club busy annoying you and me all morning. “And now everyone, check your tickets. We have a really nice, practically new, 6L6GC tube for the next lucky winner”.
That dealt with you are in. You will want to walk fast. You are looking for gems. It may seem at first that everyone there is selling used record albums, computer speakers and defunct computer games. They are. If this article serves one purpose alone it is to tell the amateur radio community once and for all that nobody wants to buy your used computer speakers or your wife’s old hair dryer. And oh by the way, labeling it a forced-air thermal circuit board dryer is fooling no one. It is a used hair dryer. Frankly, most tables look like a robot exploded in a Radio Shack store. But be not discouraged.
One thing you will quickly notice might even be a money-making opportunity for you. At the next hamfest you could make a fortune selling dust cloths and pledge-by-the-dose. A guy who once tried to shave his cat lest a cat hair gets caught in his antique straight key has somehow contrived to bring a Variac so covered in dust it looks like the hatch on a tank. (A Variac is a device used to bring old equipment “up to power” and though you will eventually buy one you will never use it. Never fear though, it is a great thing to sell at a hamfest.) So there is Mr. Variac owner, carting this stuff halfway across the state after having spent all night on EBay fanaticizing about how much it is worth but who did not have a moment to spare for hitting it with a can of air? I mean really Scarface, if you had not shaved that cat she would have dusted it for you.
So Mr. New Ham, you are there looking for three things; your fist HF rig, a power supply and an antenna. Oh yea. And the coolest looking microphone you can find. Four things. Looking to your right you see it. A great looking TS-930s. Now there is a nice first rig. Behind the table is a guy with a hat and a tag telling you his call sign and that his name is Bob. So up you go and ask how much the rig costs. Out comes a piece of paper with eBay on it showing the highest price ever paid for a TS-930S, probably by a snowbound drunk on a lonely Saturday night. Bob says, “Well, they are going on eBay for $1100.00 but I can let you have it for $700”. Of course Bob is temporarily deranged so you resolve to come back near the end of the hamfest when Bob is more concerned about taking “that giant electric thing” as his wife calls it back her laundry room than he is in beating the average on the eBay street. You buy a used coax jumper for $2.00 and move on.
Wait! Was that your number? It was. You won! A collectable 1946 call book remarkable because it has all of the current officers of the ARRL in it. Way to go. Beginners luck. You take it and your piece of coax to the car.
A great thing to buy at hamfests is an antenna and there are a bunch of them here. Buying an antenna is an act of faith. There is never an instruction book and every single one of them “worked when I took it down”. I guess you just have to go with the old adage, “any piece of aluminum is better than a hank of wire”. With the benefit of a drill and the local hardware store you can always make it look like a beam. (Beware of the guy who calls it a Yagi Uda antenna because he is a pompous a…that is to say showing off and the fact that he tells you it is missing a minor part called the “driven element – which you can get anywhere” should raise a red flag.) So always buy vertical antennas at hamfests. Two reasons. They are a real “value” and most importantly, they fit in the car.
Don’t forget the coax! I can think of no reason why you should not buy used coax at a hamfest. After all, that guy told you, “it worked fine when I replaced it”. You know that 800 watt amplifier you just bought? Not because it was on your list but who doesn’t want to go QRO? Remember how the guy selling it was honest enough to tell you that though, as a newbie, you could always “try” 100 watts for a while particularly if you mount that dipole at 200 feet, if you want to take advantage of all of the db’s of gain the amp is going to give, you need a great antenna and that means….coax. I’m sure that the old coax can easily handle 800 watts. What could possibly go wrong? Another trip to the car with your amp and 240’ of RG8 in “convenient 26 foot lengths”.
There is a FT-450 over there! That ought to drive my new-used amplifier, right? And there is a nice XYL sitting there smiling at you. Up you go and ask what it costs. She sweetly smiles and says that she does not know but that her husband has just gone to the porta-potty and he should be back in about an hour if the last two times he went are any indication. Sigh.
They just announced that the VE session is about to begin. Nobody moved.
They announced that some guy was checking QSL cards. Nobody moved.
They announce that the Ecom presentation is about to begin. Thirty six armed people in camouflage move.
You walk by the ARRL booth and sign up because they are giving out band charts and you will get a nametag with your call sign on it in the mail.
Moving on. Back by Bob’s table and the 930 is still there. It is almost closing time and you are encouraged to see that he has used his eBay printout as a coaster so you hit him with the line you have heard others use all day. “Bob. I wouldn’t blame you if you said no, but I bought this amplifier, this coax and these four microphones, and I only have $380.00 left. Can you let it go for that? He says yes, he can let you have it and offers to carry it to your car for you. He throws in a coax switch, something called a “low pass filter” which you will find out doesn’t really do anything but looks really cool and the 6L6GC tube Bob just won.
And there you have it. You have finished your first hamfest! You have a new radio, an amplifier, 4 microphones, some coax, a switch, a vertical antenna, a low pass filter, a highly collectable book, a band chart, the promise of an official name tag and a 6L6GC to start your tube collection. You are on the air! You will be home by 8 AM! On the way out you snag a Variac. The guy cut the price in half and threw in a nice pair of computer speakers.
Copyright Rick McCallum